Phosphor Games explains Horn's inspiration, narrative, humour, and why Zynga's publishing it

Big game, big opportunity

Phosphor Games explains Horn's inspiration, narrative, humour, and why Zynga's publishing it
| Horn

Phosphor Games's Horn is gaining plenty of attention.

Partly it's because of the action-adventure's stunning graphics and comparison to classic console games of the genre (see below).

There's also the interesting business question of Phosphor's decision to have it published by Zynga - a company hardly known for being indie-friendly.

Plenty to discuss, then, with company director Chip Sineni.

Pocket Gamer: What was the inspiration for Horn?

Chip Sineni: Horn was inspired by all the classic action-adventure games we love on console, but don't really exist in mobile. You just can't play a game like Uncharted or Zelda on mobile with any quality.

Another thing was making a new IP anyone could play. All of us have families and loved ones and our games are either too adult or too complicated for people to play them. For us, Horn was making a game that we'd both want to play and knew others could finally play as well.

What lessons did you learn from your previous game Dark Meadow?

Because games are interactive, you're never quite sure what the end result will be until you can see it all working. Features and structures that seem obvious at the end of a project take a long time to get to.

Dark Meadow was created - from start to App Store - in about three months, and because of that, we had no time for prototype or pre-production. So, we were more or less 'pregnant' with a lot of design decisions we made early on. The game is probably more 'grindy' than we would have liked, but we couldn't really change it.

With Horn, we had more time to experiment and refine the core mechanics and flow, so we were able to come up with a really strong foundation to make the game and allow for new features. Something we took from Dark Meadow was just giving the game more time before getting into production.

Another thing learned from Dark Meadow is if you have any classic difficulty spikes, they can be perceived as 'paywalls', just by the association with other mobile games that have this.

This was pretty new to us, as retail games have this type of balance everywhere, but on mobile, that is usually an indicator that you need to spend money or waste your time. So, for Horn we tried to avoid any perceived spikes in difficulty, which makes it a bit harder to give it a natural balance.

Why do you think lock-in combat is the best way to go?

Lock-in combat for Horn was about us streamlining controls with everything else we wanted to do in third person, and giving the player something to focus on. When you are navigating around the world, you use swipe to look around, but when you are in combat, you swipe to use your sword.

We spend a lot of time prototyping what the player can do at any point, because managing a lot of situations on a touch device is difficult. We simplify it as much as possible because with a touchscreen you get about two buttons compared to the eight you get on a console controller (not counting analog sticks or D-pads).

The other thing is we just really like lock-in combat - it feels exhilarating to have these dynamic controls around an enemy - roll away from enemy attacks, look for weak points, and take advantage of situations.

Deep narrative isn't something we get a lot of on mobile. Why have you chosen this route?

Most mobile experiences are meant to be played in quick bursts, and it is probably believed it would be hard to follow a story if you weren't committed to a longer timeframe in which to play it. Now, although we are well into the cycle on mobile where players want different things from different mobile games, for some people it may be the primary thing they game on.

Since we come from a console background and we have storytelling in our DNA, we use narrative as a way to motivate the player to continue playing, as opposed to relying on just pure mechanics.

Now that more companies are showing that players on mobile respond to deeper narrative experiences and want more, these kinds of games will become much more common.

How are you handling the humour? It can be hard to appeal to everyone.

Horn isn't really a comedy or tongue-in-cheek, at least any more than a blockbuster like The Avengers. It's just many games tend to be a bit stiff - nothing humorous ever happens in serious situations.

We have two main characters in the game: Horn, the character you play, and Gourd, the little head you carry around with you. They are classic 'unwilling companions' on the quest, bickering and at odds with other, both with their own very different motivations.

In both Dark Meadow and now Horn, the most successful storytelling in our games tends to come not from the big overarching story, but the smaller asides the characters have.

What's your approach in terms of business model, pricing, cross-platform, etc.?

Horn is a premium game announced for both iOS and Android platforms. We are hitting Tegra devices first, and after that other popular Android devices. Our current price is $6.99.

How did the Zynga deal come about, and why is it good for Horn and Phosphor?

After Dark Meadow came out, we were generally happy with the immediate reception we got from the enthusiast game press and fans, but being a small indie dev we weren't able to open the game up to a larger audience after that.

It's a very big problem on iOS to get 'discovered' after your initial release, and this was after Dark Meadow was Apple's Game of the Week and reviewed by every major games site.

For Horn - early on - we wanted to find a partner who would allow us to make the game exactly as we wanted to, and open the game up to larger networks of people so we could find new players after that first month on the store.

We talked to all the major mobile publishers and even some global marketing firms, and the company that gave us the best deal in terms of keeping our vision and delivering us to a wider audience was Zynga.

The people we are working with are very passionate gamers, and come from all areas of the industry, and they have been one of the best publisher relationships we've experienced.